Oliver Twist is a classic novel in English literature. It was published in parts between 1837 to 1839. It was written by the famous writer Charles Dickens.
About the author: Charles Dickens lived between 1812 and 1870 in England. He has been labelled by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.
Some of his most well-known pieces include ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and ‘Great Expectations’. Today is work is still prescribed at school-level and film and television have made on-screen adaptions of almost all his pieces. His style of writing often describes poor social conditions and makes light of the characters and scenes in his stories.
Plot summary: The story begins with a mother entering a workhouse, whereby she proceeds in giving birth to a young boy and thereafter dying.
And so this young boy is cast into a life of hardship and labour in the workhouse. He is named “Oliver Twist” by the beadle. He is described as a pale, scrawny-looking boy, with a pure, gentle face. But this cruel, industrial air provides no breath of happiness or joy to the young boy. He spends his childhood growing up with little food or comforts. At the main workhouse, the boys are all starved and desperate. They decide to draw straws to see who must go up to the cook and request another helping of food. As fate would have it, the innocent little Oliver is elected. The event results in Oliver being heavily disciplined and separated from the rest. It is decided that they will sell the boy off to avoid further difficulties.
Oliver is purchased as an assistant to an undertaker. He is to help with the coffins, burial and mending the shop. Here once again he runs into misfortune. An arrogant, simple-minded bully called Noah makes life impossible for Oliver. Noah feels a sense of jealousy or hatred for him, and so tries in every way possible to get Oliver into trouble.
Life becomes so miserable for poor Oliver that he decides to run away. He leaves the town and journeys aimlessly out into the country. After several hard days with very little food or shelter, he bumps into another young boy.
This boy goes by the name “Artful Dodger” and he displays a strong sense of confidence and cunning. He takes Oliver back home with him. It is here where Oliver is introduced to the household, which is by no means a regular house. It is a dilapidated building on the outskirts and is kept by a dirty, sly thief called Fagin. There are several other boys living here, and they are all employees of Fagin. Their primary duties include pick-pocketing and stealing petty items from people in the streets.
Oliver, unbeknownst to him of the real intent, watches the boys “play a game” where they try to pinch a handkerchief out of Fagin’s jacket. It is a very amusing game and the other boys play it religiously. Shortly after that event, the Artful Dodger suggests Oliver goes with them to the town. Fagin agrees, and they go off to do their job. At the market, the Dodger and another boy steal from a gentleman. Oliver does not catch on quick enough and freezes in realization. He is immediately assumed to be the criminal and a chase ensues. Not long after, Oliver is caught and taken to the police court. The gentleman states he is unsure whether this boy could actually be the criminal and offers to take him in to recover.
Oliver spends several weeks recouping at the gentleman’s house. The gentleman, called Mr.Brownlow, befriends Oliver. The young boy regains his full vigour and expresses his sincere happiness. He explains his life story and how Fagin and the gang took him in. After a few months, Oliver takes up an errand to deliver books for Mr.Brown. The young boy believes this is the least he can do to return the good gentleman’s hospitality. Whilst Mr.Brownlow and a colleague see this as a true test of character, as to whether Oliver is a criminal or not.
Misfortune strikes again, and Oliver is apprehended by the villainous criminals. He is taken away back to the old building. Here he is kept under house arrest; sad and lonely. Time passes and eventually, Oliver is taken with another criminal, Bill, to break into a cottage out in the countryside. The robbery flops, Oliver is wounded, and left for dead. The residents are startled the next morning by the young boy crying at the door. He is taken in and a doctor attends to his injury. Oliver explains the situation to the household. There is a Mrs.Maylie and a young girl named Rose. They are both caring and emphatic. They believe Oliver and want to see justice done to those horrible beings.
Here things brighten up for young Oliver. He makes friends and feels part of a family. They go away to a retreat. Oliver learns to read and write and experiences joy like never in his life before.
Among the criminals Fagin and Bill, there is another shady thug called Monks. He is mysterious and has a certain detest for Oliver. They are heavily invested in his recapture. Fagin and Monks appear at the retreat. They stare at the young boy through the window of the study; Oliver awakens and grabs sight of them. He goes into a terror of fright. The household is startled and frantically searches for the two criminals; alas they have long disappeared.
A prostitute, living amidst the thieves, has a certain soft spot for Oliver. Her hatred of this lifestyle influences her to approach Rose. She tells the girl of the criminals and their whereabouts. This ultimately leads to her death, but her tip-off results in their arrests. Fagin and Bill’s fates are sealed. And Monks is apprehended.
It turns out Monks is Oliver’s half-brother. And that Oliver has a large sum of inherited monies. Monks had been searching for many years for this child; not to befriend, but to kill him. Mr.Brownlow asks Oliver whether he will give Monk’s half his inheritance. The young boy, so pure at heart, agrees.
The story ends with Monk’s giving up on his evil pursuits, and retires to America. Rose marries Mrs.Maylie’s son. It also turns out that Rose is Oliver’s aunt. They are in a way actually family. Oliver is overwhelmed with happiness. He goes to live with Mr.Brownlow under his teachings and kindness.
My Thoughts: The book is as much about Oliver and his journeys as it is a symbol of poverty and crime in early 19th century England. It covers themes relevant to the industrial period; like child labour, juvenile crimes and corruption.
During this period in history, there were many young children living out in the streets. Crime was ripe in the cities, where pick-pocketing and theft was a normal occurrence. Oliver, like many other boys, had very little say or choice in their upbringings. They were thrust into a hard, cruel life of exploit and labour.
The divide between poverty and the elite was substantial; where one had almost no chance of ever getting out of this horrible misfortune. Whereby the hungry are starved by men who are fat. And the toxic, dark inner city has no ray of light compared to that of the countryside.
The novel is a good read because it reveals a truth into the times that you and I never had to experience. Although not altogether perfect, the times we live in has made considerable improvements in terms of well-being and human rights.
Oliver’s pure heart and kindness outlasted the ever-eminent face of corruption and evil. Young Oliver, who never learnt happiness and right from wrong, was able to get through the most wicked of events. He represents good, and how it has a way of overcoming bad.
Get the book here: Oliver Twist (Penguin Classics)